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House of Tudor 

The Femmes who "Blister in the Sun" prove they're still violent after all these years

Wednesday, Sep 17 2003
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For me, as for so many kids transitioning from childhood to adolescence in the summer of 1983, the Violent Femmes' eponymous debut provided the soundtrack for my brewing rebellion and angst-riddled naiveté. The angular, post-punk fury of acoustic bassist Brian Ritchie, combined with the disturbed man-child howl of singer/guitarist Gordon Gano and the brush-driven minimalism of drummer Victor De Lorenzo, propelled me forward into the snarling embrace of touring groups like Fear, Bad Brains, Social Distortion, the Mentors, and TSOL, while simultaneously suggesting some danker territory that might be mined. 1985's Hallowed Ground -- a testament to Gano's lifelong love of the Carter Family, Robert Johnson, and Johnny Cash (bless his cotton socks and speed his soul) swirled in the undertow of his devout Baptist upbringing -- dragged me beyond the kinetic rage of punk rock stages into the dark center of men's souls. Through that album, I found folk anthologist Harry Smith and learned the tenuous difference between a Southern spiritual and a good, old-fashioned murder ballad, a gift for which I am still indebted. Over the last 20 years, the Violent Femmes have released 10 albums; undergone the obligatory divorces, desertions, disappointments, bankruptcies, and breakdowns requisite of a long musical career; and achieved platinum status with their self-titled debut, making it the only record in Billboard history to do so without ever breaking the Top 200. Along the way, Ritchie recorded five solo albums and became a master of the Japanese bamboo flute, earning the title Tairaku, or "Big Music"; De Lorenzo released four solo records, proving drumsticks are the burden of lesser men; and, last year, Gano finally released his first solo LP, albeit with participation from some loving admirers such as PJ Harvey, Frank Black, John Cale, and Lou Reed. Despite the passage of time and the decrease in output, the Violent Femmes boast a fan base that remains weirdly, eternally youthful, with a fresh batch of young faces appearing in force at every show to sing cult classics like "Blister in the Sun," "Add It Up," and "Kiss Off," which Gano wrote in high school. Thankfully, the Femmes are not too consumed by artistic pretensions to give the kids what they want: De Lorenzo still shoves drumsticks up his nose, has sex with the backdrops, and does jumping jacks during sensitive ballads; Ritchie still calls the set list according to whim and wields didgeridoo, saxophone, conch, or xylophone as the mood takes him; and Gano still approaches pop music like a member of the proletariat, making it as earnest, accessible, and infectious as the common porch song. The Violent Femmes perform on Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 17-18, at the Great American Music Hall with John Bisagna opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $26; call 885-0750 or go to www.musichallsf.com.


New Yorkers are perpetually trying to explain the musical gazingstock that is Sxip. Their eyes grow big as saucers and they wave their hands around, emitting odd tones of pleasure and emphatic non sequiturs such as "A bowllike thing with a tampon applicator, utterly transcendent" before sagging from the effort and saying simply, "I guess you'll just have to go see him." The first time I saw Sxip he was peeling old chewing gum off of hunks of sidewalk and channeling the voices and the songs trapped therein, seemingly impervious to the black sludge dribbling down his chin. He's one of those musicians who see potential and beauty in detritus and shrapnel. As a collector of lost things and constructor of never-before-heard noise, Sxip has served as musical director for the Bindlestiff Circus and appeared with the Daredevil Opera Company at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., leaving a legion of slack-jawed critics in his wake. With a musical arsenal that includes the industrial flute, the mutant harmonica, the obnoxiophone, the triple-extended penny whistle, a miniature hand-bell choir, and a regurgitated music box, he conjures a world of infernal calliopes and cotton candy machetes wielded by Gypsy crones with angel feet. During a recent stay in Romania and Istanbul, where Sxip was, of course, embraced by the Rom as being just mad enough to be one of them, he purchased a zurna, an instrument he claims is the most terrifying he has ever heard, which is saying a lot. I guess we'll just have to go and see. Sxip performs on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 19-20, at the Odeon with Evolution Control Committee opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8; call 550-6994 or go to www.odeonbar.com.


The Oakland quartet Winfred E. Eye, named for singer Aaron Calvert's grandfather, tells the tales of ordinary men with ordinary troubles: Tom MacGrady smokes crack cocaine; Schimke Binx is a village idiot without a juggling act; Lare once had a beautiful guitar that was run over by a car and mended with duct tape; the "Run Along" protagonist sniffs his dental floss after he's through; and Grandpa hides his heartbreak with a deadly smile. Booze, flatulence, pollywogs, and sandbox chocolates (a wicked euphemism for cat shit) are common currency on The Dirt Tier, which is the name of both the band's third full-length release and the psychological domain that its members inhabit all year round. Under the watchful eye of Calvert and company, "farts" and "frogs" leave the land of lazy summers and schoolboy pranks to become weather vanes of emotional famine. Shuddering minor keys, lonesome drifts of dobro, shambling percussion, and wide-open spaces broken by threads of harmonica and organ belie Winfred E. Eye's self-contented smiles and cheerfully woolly faces. And Calvert's well-tanned and bottle-torn voice confirms it: The East Bay is a land full of woe. Winfred E. Eye performs on Sunday, Sept. 21, at the Make-Out Room with Boxcar Saints and Odessa Chen opening at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $6; call 647-2888 or go to www.makeoutroom.com.

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Silke Tudor

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